The Travail Kitchen and Amusements team turns to three Twin Cities architecture firms to design a flagship restaurant, a pizza place, and a barbecue joint

By Joel Hoekstra

Some meals are served in courses. Others come in a rush with loaded platters, bubbling pots, brimming bowls, and hot plates delivered to the table all at once—a feat of kitchen multitasking.

The chef-owners of Travail Kitchen and Amusements excel at both, but their current foray into space-making definitely resembles the latter more than the former. This fall, the trio behind the business—Mike Brown, Bob Gerken, and James Winberg—will move into a new home, a two-story, glass-and-steel box located a stone’s throw from the site in downtown Robbinsdale where they opened their original restaurant in 2010. The new building, designed by Peterssen/Keller Architecture, will be the third and most sophisticated iteration of the renowned restaurant.

“Travail is a progressive concept. Its approach to food changes and evolves,” says Winberg. “As it changes, it outgrows buildings. We outgrew our original building and then a second one. Mentally, physically, and conceptually, we were ready for a new space.”

Meanwhile, the old Travail space has been remodeled as the new home for the trio’s second endeavor, the wildly popular Pig Ate My Pizza. The clean, modern space, detailed with some steampunk fixtures and a hint of porcine pink lighting, was designed by RoehrSchmitt Architecture and built on a tight budget. Mike Brown hired an Amish carpenter to design the tables and furniture in the dining room, and the open kitchen is typical of Travail endeavors—unfettered sightlines turn the cooking into theater.

As if two building projects weren’t enough, the Travail team also opened a third concept in a stand-alone storefront in northeast Minneapolis this past spring. Minnesota BBQ Co. serves up brisket, duck, chicken, sausage, and more in a spartan-yet-comfy space designed by Joy Martin Architecture. Why juggle three projects at a time? “We thought, ‘Do we want to actually do this, or do we want to play it safe?’” says Gerken. “The answer was easy.”

The new Travail will be unlike anything ever built on Broadway Avenue in Robbinsdale. But Brown says the chef-owners never seriously considered moving to another place. “We’vebuilt relationships here,” he says. “We built a family—with employees, customers, the city.”

Travail’s cooking has always been surprising, delighting diners with unexpected food and drink prepared tableside with theatrical flair. The team’s three building concepts all capitalize on that idea: There’s no fourth wall between the chefs and patrons in any of the projects. You can watch your meal get made from start to finish; that’s the fun of it.

When the new flagship restaurant opens in September, the Travail team will finally have a stage designed for the kind of culinary spectacle they love to present. Customers will enter through a wall covered with ivy. Knives will hang above them in an alcove. On some nights, patrons will be asked to reach into a small hole in an interior wall, where a mysterious morsel will be placed in their hand.

Brown says he was overwhelmed when he saw the plans for the building. “All I could think was, ‘This is going to be ours?’” he says. “It was like a waiter delivering a dish you never thought you could afford to taste. It’ll be an amazing moment when the keys are handed over.”